Behind the Headlines Plight of Soviet Jewry on Film

“Escape to the Sun,” the first motion picture to deal with the plight of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate to Israel and “based” on events leading up to the infamous Leningrad hijack trial in 1970, had its world premiere last night at the Criterion Theater. It is a controversial film. But the controversy, unfortunately, is whether it is a bad or terrible film, amateurish or inept.

The New York Times film critic wrote that current events and problems have spawned a number of bad films. “And now, to treat the plight of Jewish intellectuals in Russia, which isn’t a joke, comes Menahem Golan’s ‘Escape to the Sun,’ which is.” The acting, he stated, ranges from “the professionally inept to the almost amateurish and which deals in a helpless pseudo-realism.” The Times critic noted further that the film “continually strives to be fancy without ever achieving competence,” But the direction, he asserted, is what “really subverts the movie and keeps sinking it beneath the level, to which it might have aspired, of the merely routine.”

The critic for the Film Review of the Jewish Broadcasting and Film Committee of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, wrote that “by and large the characters fall short of the potential of the story. Their emotion often is a mere pastiche of the real thing, and they become unbelievable and boring.”

This writer, who saw it last night and previously last summer in Israel, felt the film did nothing to present the cause of Soviet Jewry in a forceful, significant and realistic manner. In fact, the film on many levels is a disservice to the tragedy and heroism of the Soviet Jews.

CARICATURES AND INACCURACIES

The characters portrayed are caricatures of the real Jews who have defied and challenged the Soviet bureaucracy and have risked their jobs and freedom in their fight for the right to emigrate. The film plods away and is bogged down in technical gimmicks of still frames interspersed with fuzzy lighting to present flashbacks, and swaying camera work presumably to provide the tension which the film fails to develop in the unfolding scenes.

The passion and the anguish which the real Soviet Jews express in their daily activities and which has seared the conscience of mankind, is here portrayed in full gamut from a to A. Yuda Barkan, the Israeli actor who looks like a young Paul Muni, portrays the medical student, Yasha, one of the group of illfated Jews seeking to “escape to the sun.” His acting varies from a full-mouthed smile when he is happy to a close-lipped grimace when sad.

Gila Almagor, who was brilliant as the prostitute in the Israeli-made film, “Queen of the Road,” has a small part as the presiding judge who pronounces the sentences on the Jewish prisoners, Laurence Harvey, the villainous commissar, Kirsanov, complete with drooping mustache and menacing looks is insufferably melodramatic and stilted. Various and sundry characters popping in and out of alleys, cars and doorways seem to be from the old Hollywoodieh spies and good-guys films.

The worst part of the film is its historical inaccuracy and, what in fact, amounts to falsification in one instance: two of the Jews in the group seeking to escape are shown boarding a Soviet airliner armed with guns. In the real event, one of the would be emigrants (Mark Dymshitz) was armed but the gun did not work and all the defendants testified at their trial that they had no desire or intention to use firearms.

There are other glaring faults. Not once does the film concede that the action is taking place in the Soviet Union although all the signs on the public walls, streets, buses and newspapers are in Russian. (According to the film credits, the picture was shot on location in Norway, Germany and Russia. The film, in fact, was not in any part photographed in Russia.) Not once is there any mention that the land of the “sun” is Israel. The country to which the ill-fated group is seeking to emigrate is referred to as “over there.” Even the fact that the group is Jewish is implied rather than spelled out: their names are Jewish and in one scene Yasha is scornfully referred to as “Jew.”

POSSIBLY A PRIMER ON SOVIET JEWRY

Moreover, the oppression the group is suffering from is limited to the alternately sullen/leering, compassionate/vengeful antics of Kirsanov. Not once is the nature of the plight of the Jewish people shown in its full scope and magnitude. Not once is the pervasive nature of Soviet repression of Jewish rights dealt with in depth. It is possible that those involved in the film felt that the presence of these elements would be taken amiss as a contribution to cold-war anti-Soviet politics. As it is, the absence of these elements taken together with the worst type of Hollywoodiana makes a mockery of the Soviet Jewry struggle.

In Israel many in the audience on the opening night of the film in Jerusalem, voted with their feet – they walked out midway in the presentation. At last night’s showing, which drew some 1500 people including local and national political figures and activists in the Soviet Jewry struggle who paid up to $15 to watch the film, no one walked out. But when the film ended after 105 minutes, several people applauded halfheartedly. There were audible expressions of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

Are there any redeeming features at all? Only if the film is viewed as a primer on Soviet Jewry rather than an in-depth presentation. Boris Kogan, a recent arrival in Israel from the Soviet Union, who was present at last night’s world premiere, expressed the hope that the film would help bring into focus the plight of Soviet Jews. Richard Maass, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said the film is indicative of heightened public sensitivity about Soviet Jewry that a full length feature film has been made on this topic.”

Compared to early films dealing with anti-Nazi themes and the horrors suffered by Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe – “Watch on the Rhine,” “The Seventh Cross,” and “The Moon is Down” – “Escape to the Sun” is a disaster. And it is a Jewish disaster because the way the theme, which imperatively needs telling, is presented, is badly botched.

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